Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man By Jessica Bruder, Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2007, Hardcover, 352 pages, $28.95.
There is a big, week-long party going on right now in the middle of an alkali desert near Reno, Nevada, and it is called Burning Man. It is called Burning Man because at the end of the party an enormous wooden man is lit on fire. The reasons for doing this are obscure.
At this party, people do many things for obscure reasons. A group of fisherman from Oregon cart three-quarters of a ton of tuna to the party and then they give it out to people for free. These men are called "the Tuna Guys." People like to eat the tuna. On a related note, Jessica Bruder wrote a book about this party and I am reviewing it for Real Change.
I liked this book for two reasons.
First, I liked the book because of the pictures. If you've never seen a flame-thrower attached to a keyboard-guitar, then I suggest you check this book out. Also, if you've never seen a half-scale, 16th-century Spanish galleon on a truck chasse, I would say you should buy this book because there are pictures of one and you might be able to build one from the pictures.
Second, I liked the book because it was encouraging to me. In a world of $3.65 gasoline, I am glad to know that every August around 40,000 people have a party in a desert and they do things for obscure reasons and they do them without monetary compensation. Some people drive around in a go-cart-sized pair of fuzzy bunny slippers, others play bongo drums without their pants on -- all for free. Also, there are back rubs.
I think it's subversive, or something.
And even if it isn't, what this book details is a helluva fun time. I think I'll go when I can scrape together $240 for a ticket.
Ultimately, this is a book for people who have been to Burning Man. That's not to say that I wasn't sometimes entertained when reading Burning Book. The festival has roots in such counterculture organizations as the Suicide Club and the Cacophony Society; accounts of the festival's inception, as well as the debate over whether its organizers have "sold out," were interesting. And the motley city that forms around the Burning Man, like any city, has a pretty complex set of ethos and social codes. For example, if you wear a shirt but nothing else ("shirtcocking," in the local vernacular), a pair of pants may be shot at you from a cannon. It is in relating these details and narratives that the book succeeds.
But by and large, this is a glorified scrapbook for the already converted. I've never been to Burning Man, so I'm assuming that I got this assignment because I don't wear pants to work.
By its nature, Burning Man seems to resist comparison, so I can imagine writing this book was a hard thing to do. How would you describe the county fair to someone from the Soviet Union? In Burning Book, Bruder has given it her all, with mixed results.
At one point, the Burning Man himself is likened to one of those corkscrews with side levers. I wondered if this was an apt comparison for something possibly beyond comparison. Later, Bruder writes that "Rich scents drift into the streets like spells." I'm not even sure what Bruder means by this line. Maybe I had to have been there. When I read that line I felt something like being lost in the alkali desert between a coffee-table book and bad poetry.
Nonetheless, there are people, ones who've seen the festival firsthand, who will love this book. They will like the pictures -- truly great pictures -- and probably think fondly of what sounds like the weirdest and wildest party out there. And for my part, I appreciated Burning Book as an attempt to write the supremely sublimated and the ultimately ineffable.